Fender Texas Special Strat Pickups

Bob Leggitt | Sunday, 25 December 2011
Fender Texas Special Stratocaster Pickup

Fender’s Texas Special pickups were developed around two decades ago, in a bid to help capture the sound of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Number 1’ Strat, for a posthumous SRV signature guitar. Sporting its new, purpose-made Texas Specials, the SRV signature Strat first got widespread UK coverage in the December 1992 issue of Guitarist magazine. The guitar itself didn’t fare that well, but the pickups created a positive impression with the reviewer.

Initially, Texas Specials were not only exclusive to the Strat (no Tele version existed), but exclusive to the SRV model, and they weren’t available as spares. The only vintage-style Fender Strat pickup in the UK shops during 1992 was the standard output USA '57 & '62 model (not the same as the current '57/'62). However, it was soon clear that interest in the SRV Strat’s pickups spread much wider than a lone British guitar critic, and Fender began to offer the Texas Specials separately, as a three-piece boxed and calibrated set, for anyone who wanted them.

One of the most noticeable things about Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Number 1’ Strat was the exceptionally meaty sound from the bridge pickup. Vaughan used every trick in the book to exaggerate the thick tone, including, as many will remember, stringing down from a 013 gauge top E (ouch!!!) to a 058 gauge bottom E (sharp intake of breath, etc). His viciously stubborn, but full-sounding strings apparently shredded the tips of his fingers so badly that he used to daub them with superglue (his fingertips, that is, not the strings), and perform a DIY skin-graft on them using his arm as donor. That’s what you call commitment to tone! SRV also raised his action up pretty high, which further helped to fill out the tone - but the way the pickups were wound was also highly influential in the SRV sound.

SRV’s Strat had real vintage Fender pickups, made during the period when winding specs were not accurately controlled and could be wildly erratic. The bridge unit in particular was pretty significantly overwound, and this happy accident became the central feature in the Texas Special set. Both the neck and the middle pickup had more windings and thus a greater resistance than the traditional Strat’s average of around 6K, so the whole set could be said to be overwound in varying degrees. But it was the bridge unit, at over 7K, that gave the most distinctive tone. More midrange than a regular Strat bridge pickup, and a little less treble sparkle. Aside from the increased coil windings, the Texas Specials were pretty much the same as Fender's old (pre 1998) ’57 & ‘62 Vintage model.

The Texas Specials used the same alnico V magnets, black fibre top and bottom plates, dark maroon enamelled coil wire, and cloth connection wire. However, on the Texas Specials, the middle pickup was a reverse wind / reverse polarity job, facilitating hum-free output when the pickups were combined on positions 2 and 4 of the selector switch. The Texas Special middle pickup was visually distinctive, as it had yellow and black connection wires, as opposed to the white and black normally used on a vintage Strat.

I wouldn’t recommend the Texas Specials for just any Strat. New Strats tend to be quite light on bottom end and lower mids, and the strong upper midrange of the Texas Special bridge pickup can sound pretty seriously nasal in a situation like that. I bought a set of Custom Shop Texas Specials back in the ‘90s and initially tried them in a new Fender MIJ ’62 Reissue. Frankly, it sounded better with the original Japanese alnico Vs, so I took the Texas Specials back out. However, my 1984 Tokai TST-60 was very well used and well matured, and had a more substantial acoustic tone. The Texas Specials suited that guitar nicely, and they’re still in there today.

However, I'd stress that the Texas Specials, in themselves, won’t create the SRV ‘Number 1 Strat’ tone. You do need a mature piece of wood, and the thickest strings you can take, and many would say that jacking up the action is obligatory too. You can’t fit Texas Specials to a brand new budget to mid-priced Strat, string it with a set of 008s a millimetre off the fretboard and get the SRV sound. In fact, in my view, if you do that you’re unlikely even to get a good sound. The Texas Specials are fairly hard-sounding pickups, and if you can’t compensate for that with some fullness elsewhere, the bridge unit in particular will sound overly nasal. For newer Strats with lower actions I’d go for something like the Seymour Duncan Alnico IIs, which have a much softer and more sympathetic tone. But if you do have the right Strat, and the bravery to string a set of 011s well off the fretboard, the Texas Specials really come into their own, and in that scenario work much, much better than a set of stock Japanese alnicos.

Before I conclude I should also mention the build quality of these pickups, because they were very well made. The coils are as tight and solid as they get, and provided the set was installed properly, there was no way there’d ever have been a technical problem with these. Whether they’re for you depends how you like your Strats, and how much effort you’re prepared to put in to employ them as they’re meant to be employed. If you like quite a ‘scooped’ Strat sound, mainly associated with funk but also used over the years by some blues players (Buddy Guy for instance), you'll be wasting your money on Texas Specials. But if you like things much bolder and thicker, and your Strat strikes you as too ‘scooped’, then provided you want to keep the vintage Strat personality, Texas Specials would be among a very short shortlist.